Giving Parliament and parenthood full attention

24 Feb

When Tory MP Andrew Rosindell remarked that Rachel Reeves’ maternity leave might rule her out of giving ‘full attention’ to her job, he walked into a minefield of gendered assumptions about working parenthood. Ms Reeves already holds high office in opposition with a young daughter, without apparent difficulty; would Mr Rosindell suggest that the Prime Minister’s children prove too much of a distraction from running the country? Thought not.   Presumably he thinks that is what David Cameron’s wife is for – conveniently forgetting that she also works, and that the couple may have other support in caring for their children.   And working men are parents too. The Reeves and the Camerons do not seem to be struggling particularly with work-life balance; indeed relatively high pay and (in Reeves case) access to informal care provided by family members make their arrangements more straightforward than those in many families. In case Mr Rosindell hasn’t noticed, the world is full of working women who happen to be parents.

His outmoded views of how professional women cope with having jobs and children simultaneously, is given added piquancy by the discussion sparked by the Straw/Rifkind sting. A whole debate has now grown around the extent to which it is possible to carry on with other commitments whilst being an MP – to what extent is public office a full-time job? Whilst paid lobbying is out of the question, is it ok to be a doctor or lawyer, a journalist, a consultant on boards, etc.? Does outside experience enhance the House, or is total commitment to the role the only way? Among the questions not being asked are, can men do two things at once? Does fatherhood interfere with public office? Perhaps to help resolve these issues, parliamentarians should ask a busy woman. She’ll make the time and have the skills to sort things out. And then go home and tell the kids about another full day at work.



The pink bus: a politics for her?

11 Feb

The internet is abuzz with reaction to Labour’s pink campaign bus for women voters. It will be used to ferry a group of female Labour MPs around the country, in a bid to address women’s issues in an approachable way.

In fact, the colour of the bus – which is controversial enough, and which has been the chief target of social media ire – bothers me less than the talk accompanying it. The idea apparently is for the Labour notables to go on a ‘kitchen table’ tour – a phrase which does rather suggest that the kitchen is where we women are supposed to be. Granted I love a good political argument around mine, but I don’t think that’s quite the image being conjured up here. Lucy Powell, a senior figure in Labour’s election campaign, is quoted in the Guardian as saying that the bus will mean that the female MPs “have a conversation about the kitchen table, and around the kitchen table” rather than having an “economy that just reaches the boardroom table” ‘.

An economy that ‘just reaches the boardroom table’? – that is just an impossible concept – the economy is created by all the activity of workers everywhere, and boards generally meet to make decisions and decide strategy for the future of whole companies. I’d prefer the kitchen table to be viewed as an integral part of the economy and society, and of course who sits at it most, is part of the backdrop to who makes it to the boardroom. I hope this is part of the conversation Labour will be having.

A Populus poll covered in the FT last week showed that while Labour enjoys a small lead over the Conservatives amongst women voters (3%), mothers of children under 18 are much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative (48% compared to 28%). These figures suggest that Labour has appeal for women, with mothers a key source of support. As over 70% of mothers are now employed, the kitchen table may not be the best place to look for them. Harriet Harman has argued that the bus is part of message showing that women in politics can stand up for women in society, which is a worthwhile aim. But judging by the online conversation, there’s a lot of people who feel that the pink bus is a turn-off, no matter how well-intentioned the focus on women may be.

The issues that have been highlighted as key to the bus tour for women are: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and female representation. These are all important issues, and yes, concern the position of women. But they also concern men – as fathers, as sons and partners, as perpetrators, as co-workers and as the main holders of positions of power. In packaging them as ‘women’s issues’, there’s a risk that they become more distant from the political mainstream. And if we look at the issues that are high up in the current general election debate – the NHS, the state of the economy, cost of living, immigration, education, EU membership, international policy in defence and foreign relations – all of these impact on women as well as men. In fact, as we still tend to do more of the care work, and are more likely to be employed in the public sector, some of these issues may even affect us more than men. And women are just as capable as men of forming an opinion on issues, which may not, literally, be part of daily life.

Perhaps the pink bus should be credited with getting us all talking about gender and politics, but it might do no harm to remember that ‘bus’ is short for ‘omnibus’ which means ‘for all’. That’s how I, and I suspect many others, like their politics.


Caring values

9 Feb

In an interesting juxtaposition, the headlines have been shared by two stories: Labour’s plan to double the length and raise the pay rates for paternity leave, and research showing that 160,000 workers in the care sector earn less than the minimum wage.

At first the two may not seem related, but on reflection they represent two aspects of the same issue: in our society caring work is undervalued, and rates of pay fail to reflect the efforts and skills of those doing it, or the value to society of the relationships this work builds.

I’m all in favour of men being given more opportunity to take paternity leave and also to share parental leave in their child’s early life – the evidence indicates that this is often a positive thing for families and for gender equality. In Sweden, where men have been entitled to a relatively generous parental leave regime for years, it’s been shown that every additional month of leave taken by a father is associated with a 7% rise in annual income for the mother of his children; and fathers who have taken parental leave tend to see their children more in the event of parental separation or divorce. In Iceland, where men are entitled to not one but three ‘daddy months’ , both breastfeeding rates and mother’s employment rates are amongst the highest in the world. And many point to evidence relating fathers’ involvement to good educational and social outcomes for children.

Labour’s plans for paternity leave may well be a step in the right direction, but they present a few issues as well: they are talking about raising the pay for paternity leave to national minimum wage level, which is a considerable improvement on the current very low rates, but nothing like the level offered in Scandinavian countries, or comparable to many fathers’ actual wages. Furthermore, while this reform would go a little way to making UK paternity leave more affordable, it also poses the question as to whether statutory maternity pay and shared parental leave should be raised to the same level. From an equalities perspective the answer has to be yes; besides, if the argument is that better rates of pay create better incentives to take time for care, it’s hard to see why this changes after the first four weeks of leave.

And these issues of incentives and equalities remind us again that paternity leave is granted in a context – a context of our expectations around, and the value of, care. It seems very difficult to argue that paternity leave should be better-rewarded than maternity leave, even if the economic reality is that men are often better-paid. The gender pay gap is in considerable part a result of attitudes and past behaviour in terms of who does the lion’s share of caring and domestic work. This brings us back to the story about underpayment of careworkers: over 80% of these workers are women. So no matter which phase of life we’re dealing with, and whether the carers are family members or a paid workforce,   the matter of gender won’t go away. Workers in childcare are not notably well-paid either, and also tend to be female. So if looking to give parents a break and to enhance choice around employment and care, it might pay to take a long look at the whole infrastructure of support for families. It’s often said that who dares wins, but the electorate might appreciate a greater understanding that who cares often loses. Changing that might get a few votes.


The challenge of change for low-income families

30 Jan

I was listening to the Prime Minister on the Today programme the other day, outlining the decision to continue to maintain pensioner benefits, whilst reducing the welfare budget elsewhere. He said that this was done in recognition of the fact that pensioners cannot easily adjust their circumstances and that it would be unfair to expect this of them. Therefore cuts to benefit expenditure must be found elsewhere, amongst the younger population of working age. I really wonder how much thought has been put into the idea that changing one’s circumstances is easier here.

For a start, there is the well-worn point that many of those in receipt of benefits are in fact employed already – on low wages that mean they need the additional support of social security to make ends meet. Many are working long hours for little pay, leaving precious little time to search for a better opportunity; many are tied to their local area by community, their children’s schools, travel-to-work costs. In a scenario where costs increase, and/or where the value of benefits decreases relative to other costs, it is possible to make work not pay – the opposite of policymakers’ aims. And if you are out of work and struggling as it is, cuts in benefits will make everyday living harder, and may compel decisions which remove you from networks of support. If rising costs and cuts in benefits mean that unemployed parents or low-income working families move house in search of cheaper rent, they may lose a great deal in terms of community support, their children’s education, the jobs they have, or future opportunities.

David Cameron seems to think that changing your circumstances in early and mid-adulthood is fair to expect. This might well be so if you have a good education and employment record, and a range of marketable skills, but for many of those in need of additional support, this may not be so. Say you’ve had time out of the workforce to raise children and find that your skills no longer meet labour market requirements; say you don’t have a partner who can easily pick up your children from school so that you can take on conventional working hours. Say the reason that you need housing benefit as a young person is because you have no family to fall back on, and earn too little to afford city rents without support. Say you’ve never gained qualifications, or have disabled or elderly relatives who rely on you for care. None of these circumstances make it easy to change your life. The policy of freezing or cutting working-age benefits is likely to mean that more people seek drastic solutions to make ends meet: so they take on second and third jobs which impact on their health and their families’ ability to function; they move house and lose relationships or jobs; they turn to money lenders charging high rates of interest.

None of these scenarios is cost-free. From a position of economic security and social and educational capital, it is easy perhaps for politicians and others to underestimate the challenges of change for less advantaged families. If it is true that it is not fair to expect pensioners to be able to change their circumstances easily – and that seems eminently reasonable – why is that less true for families of younger adults and children? When wages have stagnated (according to reports today we still take home less than in 2001) , when affordable, high-quality childcare is only patchily available, and when relatively few people under 35 can manage to buy their own home, how easy is it to transform your life? For many of working age it would seem that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – and the thing which stays the same is the struggle to make ends meet, and a lack of recognition of how hard that can often be.



750 years on, what about women in parliament?

19 Jan

2015 is a big year in the history of democracy in the UK, with the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the charter which laid the foundations for the rule of law and rejected the divine right of kings, and this week’s 750th anniversary of the first English parliament. The De Montfort parliament met on 20th January 1265, and was marked by its inclusion of representatives from the major towns, as well as knights from the counties, thus making it the first parliament with regional representation beyond the baron class.

With all these anniversaries, it seems a good time to reflect on the history of women in parliament – a history of course much shorter than men’s, as women only gained the right to stand in 1918, shortly after women over 30 had been granted the right to vote, following the lengthy campaign for women’s suffrage. The first woman to be elected was Countess Markievicz, who as a Sinn Fein candidate did not take up her seat, though she went on to serve in the Irish parliament. After over 700 years of parliamentary history we are now represented by 650 MPs, 23% of whom are women. This is the highest proportion of women MPs ever achieved, but this progress is rather dwarfed by the following infographic:



So what can we shout about in terms of women’s representation and participation in Parliament? Having taken just short of a century to make up less than a quarter of MPs, is it time to take more assertive measures to get women in via quota systems or all-women shortlists? The European countries with the best records in terms of women’s representation are the Nordic countries, where various strategies have been implemented. In Iceland, there is a voluntary quota system for party candidates which has led to a parliament that is around 40% female; 44% of Swedish parliamentarians are women – there is no quota system here, but gender equality is powerfully supported constitutionally, including in the famously egalitarian system of parental leave. Over half of Sweden’s government ministers are female.

Meanwhile back here in Britain, a House of Commons Library publication illustrates the contribution of women in parliament to social justice and family welfare. The first sitting woman MP was Nancy Astor, who remarked in 1928 that 20 measures affecting women and children had been passed since 1918, when women first entered parliament, compared to only 5 between 1903 and 1918. So women’s voices have made a difference to the legislation and life of Britain. Since then, women MPs have been instrumental in introducing laws regarding domestic violence, FGM, Child Benefit and reforms to women’s rights in terms of pensions, as well as crucially influencing the climate around equal pay, marriage and divorce and wider equalities legislation.

All this suggests that women can make a difference in the House, and that women voters can make their voices heard. As we limber up to the 2015 election let’s remember how far women have come, but not underestimate the challenges. Depressingly, it has been estimated that nearly three quarters of parliamentary candidates are men. Women must campaign – and vote – to change that.


Promoting Women: What you see is what you get?

8 Jan

Welcome to 2015 – many articles in the papers and on-line have talked about the success of feminism in 2014 (e.g. this Guardian leader) with social media rallying women to a variety of causes, and Malala winning the Nobel peace prize.

And indeed progress has been made, in spite of continuing concerns around objectification and trolling of women in public life. So, as the new year dawns we have been encouraged by an avalanche of articles and listicles to participate – and get ahead – in our new world of opportunities.

Optimistically, I dived into the Telegraph’s Women section to read a piece on ‘How to be promoted’. Couldn’t help noticing that the illustration showed the handshake of what were incontrovertibly two businessmen. The picture has now been changed to include women.

Then my attention was caught by a headline in the New York Times Opinion section – Nicholas Kristof on ‘How to get more women to join the debate’. Interested to find out, I clicked on the link and found that this piece is in fact by a young woman called Emma Pierson who has analysed around a million comments on the NYT website and found that women leave only around a quarter of the comments. They tend to cluster in areas of stereotypically female interest such as parenting blogs, rather than in stereotypically male areas of interest. There’s a discussion about how algorithms based on reader preferences may reinforce such stereotypes. All good stuff, but initially promoted under Nicholas Kristof’s name rather than the writer’s. When you click through the authorship is clear, and it is also clear that this blog includes pieces by writers other than the man himself, but it seems a great shame that this analysis of women’s role in public debate, written by a woman, is initially found under the man’s name. Perhaps we should accept that a wider readership will access it under the better-known Kristof name than her own, but this seems to amplify the very concerns that the article raises – that women face barriers in entering public debate, and most of what is written in the media is written by men. Couldn’t there be some formula for the opinion page click-through which credits the female author immediately as a contributor to the Kristof blog? Not that difficult really.

By sticking a picture of businessmen above an article on workplace promotion, and by promoting a woman’s writing under the name of a man, two newspapers show that we still have some way to go on the journey towards gender equality. We do need to move beyond what Grayson Perry so eloquently described as ‘Default Man’. Let’s hope that in 2015 women get to be seen to be full participants in working and public life.



Nativity then and now

16 Dec

… Nothing Wonklifebalance likes better than data and stories, so here are some key elements of the Nativity story accompanied by contemporary statistics. Plenty of food for thought this Christmas season ….


Then: Angel Gabriel tells Mary she is with child

Now: The arrival of 23% of children is announced when parents post their ultrasound scan on social media



Then: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census

Now: 45% of children under five worldwide are not registered at birth, and so at risk of missing out on full civil rights and service provision.



Then: No room at the inn, so Jesus born in a manger in the stable

Now: 93,000 children in Britain are homeless this Christmas; there are over 50 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are children

Sources: ;


Then: Wise men followed a star

Now: ‘In 2011, the US Military Budget topped US$ 900 billion for that year alone. A year later, University of California Davis PHD student Steve Haroz calculated that that’s more than the entire budget of NASA for the last 56 years’



Then: Wise men bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh

Now: Top UK toys for Christmas – My friend Cayla (doll can answer questions when synched to tablet/phone); Skating dolls from Disney Frozen franchise; Xeno the interactive monster; Kiddizoom smartwatch; Transformers Stomp and Chomp Grimlock

Source: Hamleys Top ten


Wishing all readers a very Merry Christmas and hoping for a peaceful 2015 ….


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